Irrigation Tech & Water Sustainability

Bennett Fitzgibbon

Bennett Fitzgibbon

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Agricultural Philosophies: The Difference Between Conventional, Organic & Biodynamic Farming

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The wine industry is rich with buzzwords, especially when it comes to farming practices. Enter a wine bar in San Francisco, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear the words “organic” or “biodynamic.” Sure, it might be trendy and good marketing to take advantage of these phrases not previously used to describe wine production. But we’ve also entered an age in which consumers are more aware of how products are created and their impact on the planet and on health. Agricultural philosophies vary widely, as does their prescribed relationship with water. The most clearly defined categories include conventional farming, organic farming, and biodynamic farming.

Conventional Farming

Conventional farming is a blanket term that refers to growing practices that are not limited by any guidelines other than local law. The most distinguishing factor is that conventional farming does not prohibit the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. This is how most of our food is grown, including winegrapes. For decades, we’ve been making chemical additions to our soils in order to stimulate plant growth, to protect our plants from pests, and to prevent weeds from consuming nutrients instead of crops. 

Water use is not restricted under conventional farming, except as dictated by law. Water quality and irrigation practices vary greatly, although in the wine industry drip irrigation is the standard and good water quality is crucial for producing healthy fruit that’s suitable for quality winemaking. 

Conventional farming does equate to irresponsible farming. There are many growers who do not adhere to other farming philosophies, yet restrict their chemical use and seek to avoid degradation of the land. It’s important to note that some farmers, for example, might even farm with organic practices, but do not have the resources to pursue certification. Others may face geographic features and microclimates that prevent them from completely abandoning certain chemicals in a financially sustainable manner.

Organic Farming

Organic farming is also a blanket term, but when it comes to product labeling, producers are required to pursue organic certifications in order to be able to use the term “organic.” In general, organic farming refers to growing crops without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It encourages the use of natural substances and prohibits synthetic ones. In the United States, organic certification falls under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In order to qualify for organic certification under the USDA, produce must have “grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest.”

Many studies have found that organic farms use less water than their conventionally farmed counterparts. But it’s important to consider that organic farms may produce lower yields, meaning that water use per crop may be equivalent or even greater than on conventional farms. The real benefit concerning water is that organic farming causes less pollution on the farm and in the watershed. With fewer synthetic chemicals seeping into groundwater and nearby waterways, there can be less damage to the local ecosystem. Organic farms can also more easily reclaim and reuse irrigation water because there are fewer chemicals that must be removed in the process.

Biodynamic Farming

While the principles of biodynamic farming were conceived in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it’s only more recently that the philosophy has become recognized as an alternative farming method in the United States. Biodynamic refers to a “system of farming that follows a sustainable, holistic approach which uses only organic, usually locally-sourced materials for fertilizing and soil conditioning, views the farm as a closed, diversified ecosystem, and often bases farming activities on lunar cycles.” Essentially, the goal on a biodynamic farm is to be self-contained and self-sustained with a regenerative – rather than degenerative – impact on the environment. Demeter USA is the only biodynamic certification program in the United States.

Biodynamic principles focus on soil health, biodiversity, and using organic ingredients for sprays and soil amendments. In turn, water is viewed as part of the organism, a component within the closed system. Caring for the soil and encouraging biodiversity protects clean water and improves water retention. Biodynamic farmers focus on building organic humus in the topsoil, which prevents erosion during rainfall and retains more water for dry periods. 

No matter which philosophy a farmer chooses to practice, irrigation management is a constant necessity. Lumo is committed to leveraging irrigation control and data for more informed irrigation decisions that align with a grower’s objectives, no matter the philosophy behind them. 
To learn more about how Lumo can help with you make better irrigation decisions, contact us here or email us at [email protected]

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